Home page Articles index

Why There Should Be No Apology

by Peter Howson*
Sydney Morning Herald, 6 May 2000.


Deputy Chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, Sir Gustav Nossal, stated recently that an official apology for past injustices to Aboriginals, but more particularly for the stolen generation, should be regarded as "unfinished business" on the ground that the Prime Minister refuses to make such an apology "because of the issue of cross-generational guilt." In reality, however, Sir Gustav is a member of the mostly well-meaning but misguided apologist school that is desperate to have such an apology included in the Australian Declaration Towards Reconciliation scheduled for release on 27 May.  The strategy of that group is to convey the impression that Mr Howard alone is the obstacle to such an apology when the majority of Australians are opposed - and more would be if they were better apprised of the real issues. 


The latest apologist, former Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser has claimed that other countries, such as Canada, which have apologised are ahead of Australia in their treatment of indigenous peoples. Ironically, his claim follows an outcry in Canada at recent revelations of the sad and deteriorating plight of those in indigenous reserves. In New Zealand, far from improving relations between Maori and whites, the focus on past injustices to the Maori has developed into a seemingly never-ending argument over such injustices.


Echoing this, Patrick Dodson is now demanding Constitutional recognition of indigenous rights because Aborigines allegedly face a threat to "the right to be ourselves, with our laws and customs and languages recognised by all Australians." Given the marriage (de facto or de jure) of nearly two-thirds of indigenous adults to non-indigenous spouses, and with over 70 percent of Aborigines living in urban communities and professing Christianity, such claims by the apologist movement are reaching absurd, indeed laughable, proportions.


Equally, it appears that Malcolm Fraser has not taken the trouble to examine the new evidence that has destroyed the credibility of Sir Ronald Wilson's report, Bringing Them Home. My article, The Truth About the Stolen Generation (The Age 14 April), outlined evidence tested in proper courts that clearly shows most children were removed by their parents and removals by the Government of mixed-blood children were morally and legally justified.


Most importantly, the apologist school ignores the disastrous failures of policies of the past thirty years and the urgent need to reverse those policies. In particular:


  • The emphasis on past maltreatment of Aborigines has created serious tensions in aboriginal-white relationships and has made victim-hood an easy option for Aborigines;


  • The policy of encouraging separate development gave some Aborigines land (though on a communal basis only). However, it also created cultural and economic cul-de-sacs and has made them largely dependent on the dead-end of social welfare, leading (as one report concluded) to "hopelessness, despair, and anti-social behaviour…. and contempt and hostility." In short, the emphasis on land rights, strongly promoted by Mr Fraser, has been wholly negative for Aborigines, not to mention the serious on-going inhibitions, arising from the large unsettled native title claims, to investment and employment in rural and mining leaseholds;


  • This combination of disastrous policies is behind the absolutely horrific violence extant in Aboriginal communities, some of which seem to have descended almost into barbarism. A growing number of reports/studies acknowledge  that violence in Aboriginal communities is reflecting the policies of cultural recognition, land rights and self-determination. Those Aborigines affected, mostly women and children, are in need of rescue from the life threatening situations into which a cruel fate has cast them, but their cries for help have so far gone unheeded.


What is the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation doing to address all this?


The Council's 1999 draft Declaration for Reconciliation accepted the notion that Aboriginal well-being basically requires the recognition of Aboriginal land rights, Aboriginal culture and law, and Aboriginal autonomy. It also sought an apology for past injustices.


If the 27 May Reconciliation document further promotes the outdated concepts of separate development and past injustices that will be contrary to the real interests of both Aborigines and whites. Nor will it find genuine support from most Australians. An entirely new approach is needed; one which reverses the separatist policies and rhetoric of past injustices and, instead, promotes closer Aboriginal involvement in the wider community.


Malcolm Fraser says there are also matters of "the heart and the spirit". As a former Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, with deep concern for the long term interests of Aborigines and relations between them and white Australians, my belief is that a genuine expression of the heart and spirit would lead both sides to forget the childish demands for apologies and blame attribution. We could then get on with overcoming the serious practical problems caused by the policies of successive governments over the past thirty years.



*Peter Howson was Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in 1971 and 1972